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Archive for July, 2009

I read a variety of books this month,  but I noticed as I looked over the list that many of them, fiction and nonfiction alike, featured food prominently. Location mattered, too, as I gravitated towards books set near and far, from Seattle to New England, from New York to Paris, to the mountains of Bhutan. I guess I was craving a virtual getaway. The rest of the household stuck to some familiar themes. I’ll start with their reading.

The Computer Scientist, who is a former Marine, enjoyed The Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. He says it’s a great read for anyone interested in the dynamics and challenges of Special Forces and what they faced in Afghanistan. He also read I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, because Stephen King cites Matheson as an influence in his writing. He found the stories enjoyable and says some are intriguing enough to re-read.

The Preteen just read an Enola Holmes book by Nancy Springer, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline. She pronounces this latest mystery featuring Sherlock’s younger sister, “great.” She says she likes Enola because she “sticks up for herself.”  She enjoyed the Summer Reading Kickoff at Gibson’s, and started reading a series Nancy Keane recommended, the Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.

Bookconscious regulars know the Teenager lives and breathes soccer. His summer reading, and writing, is focused on the beautiful game. He recently read Soccer in a Football World and Beckham: Both Feet on the Ground: An Autobiography. He’s also been enjoying the New York Times. We recently restarted our home delivery of the paper, and he’s been impressed with the soccer coverage, the business section, and the paper’s global scope.

We  finished reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” in our literary circle. In an earlier bookconscious post, I explained that the Teenager requested Eliot and we’ve been reading our way through some of his major poems since April. He found “The Four Quartets” very appealing because he felt it was a little easier to penetrate than “The Waste Land,” but still full of intriguing language and fascinating imagery. When we talked about “Little Gidding” he said he liked the storytelling voice that seemed to take over the poem.

I enjoyed “The Four Quartets” very much myself. I liked the way Eliot refers back to some of his own earlier work and gives readers of “The Waste Land” a sense of completion — many of the disturbing spiritual and emotional disconnect is restored and reconnected in the later poem. As a not very accomplished student of mindfulness, I think Eliot masterfully describes the trouble with the human tendency to look backwards and forwards, rather than seeing what’s happening right now in this moment

Eliot also clearly values literary history and is very concerned with war and its inevitable connections to both the past and future. I think his poetry reflects a mindfulness influenced by his Western perspectives, recognizing the suffering our attachments and desires cause us, scrutinizing our historical mistakes, and trying to carry the best of human experience (including great literature) with us as we move into the future.

The way Eliot synthesizes so many influences — grail mythology, Hindu texts, Buddhist philosophy, Christian spirituality and mysticism, and literature from ancient to modern — makes his work endlessly intriguing. He’s definitely an example of the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness. It sometimes feels like he puts everything he’s ever read, and everywhere he’s ever been or thought of going (as well as a few imagined locations) into his work.

The Computer Scientist found some useful secondary sources at Ohrstrom Library that helped us untangle the layers of meaning in “The Four Quartets.” Two were The Composition of the Four Quartets by Helen Gardner and T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems: The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets by Derek Traversi. He also found artist David Finn’s inviting book of paintings, Evocations of Four Quartets, from Ohrstrom library, which added a whole new dimension to our Eliot explorations. I would love to see these works in person.

Another artist whose work I admired this month is Brian Andreas. I picked up Volume 5, Hearing Voices, in his series of “Mostly True Stories and Drawings” at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Andreas writes in his introduction that his creative process is about listening: “Every line is a whisper of memory, of my life at that moment.” He suggests, “There may be answers hidden in the quick connections of this book. Or maybe they’re just beyond the edges, waiting for us to hear.”

An example of the stories in Hearing Voices is Invention. Story or art? You decide. I took this book to the beach (one of the only days in June that it didn’t rain) and both kids thought it was funny and strange.

Eliot’s poems and Andreas’s stories were the two things I read that had nothing to with food. One book I very much enjoyed focused on what animals eat, specifically deer, wild turkeys, and other New Hampshire wildlife. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has a new book coming out in September, The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons From the Natural World. It’s the first “ARC” or advanced reading copy, I’ve read as events coordinator at Gibson’s Bookstore. I’m working on setting up a date for Thomas to come read from the book and sign at the store. Watch our events calendar, because she’ll be coming in the fall.

In The Hidden Life of Deer, Thomas writes about what she learned as she fed deer and turkeys near her home after the  the oaks failed to produce their usual crop of acorns a few years ago. It turns out there is a very good reason for the dearth of acorns, which Thomas explains. She decided to help her animal neighbors avoid starvation, and she doesn’t shy away from discussing the arguments against putting out corn, the possibility that when she fed the wildlife she was “meddling” with nature, and why she chose to do so.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is that although Thomas writes beautifully and presents a great deal of very specific scientific information, you get the feeling she’s just telling you the story as you sit with her. I liked hearing about her interactions with a hunter neighbor and the NH Fish and Game Department, as well as her observations about the deer’s family groups.

Thomas’s knowledge and exploration of the natural world began when she was just a girl, and she shares some of the formative experiences that have fed her interest in animals and plants and their symbiotic relationships. She has a beautiful way of elucidating these interdependencies, both among flora and fauna and between humans and the wild.

I found these passages fascinating and educational.  Thomas talks about inadvertently destroying a “refugium of flies” in her shed, something I’d never heard of.  And her distress over the chain reaction she accidentally set off when ridding her office of rats gave me pause.

Thomas’s musings on ethics, history, and biology, and her deep curiosity and keen observations, make The Hidden Life of Deer so much more than a well written, thoughtfully researched book on deer. How many people have ever heard a mouse sing? Who else has written about it? Thomas has a gift for this kind of remarkable detail. Look for her book this fall.

From a book that’s not yet in stores, to one I’ve had for years but left in the to-read pile until recently: Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa. I’ve recently become friends with a refugee family from Bhutan, who’ve spent years in a camp in Nepal waiting to either go home or be resettled. I remembered that I had the book on my shelf after we talked about their leaving Bhutan.

Zeppa arrived in the country just before the unrest. She was there as a volunteer teacher with a Canadian NGO. Beyond Earth and Sky is her memoir of moving to Bhutan, overcoming culture shock, embracing Buddhism, teaching in an elementary school and then in a college English department, and falling in love.

Beyond the Sky and the Earth provides an honest look at what many international volunteers go through as they not only adapt to their new surroundings, but also feel differently about their native culture.  I enjoyed reading about Zeppa’s personal transformation, especially because she was honest about the setbacks she experienced as well as the discoveries. If you liked Eat, Pray, Love, but felt like it was a little unrealistic, try Beyond the Sky and the Earth.

Zeppa’s  descriptions of Bhutanese food, culture, and landscape transported me away from rainy New Hampshire, and helped me figure out what I’ve been eating at my friends’ house. But the book that made me hungriest this month was Giulia Melucci ‘s I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. Melucci is coming to Gibson’s on August 5th, for a reading sponsored by the Women’s Fund of New Hampshire.

Her memoir of life as a young professional in New York, looking for love and loving to cook, is a fun read. Melucci writes fondly of her family and friends and even some of her exes, but my favorite part of the book is the mouth watering meal descriptions and recipes. I dare you not to nosh while reading this book — I went through large bowls of popcorn, myself.

Both Zeppa and Melucci not only describe great meals, but also write beautifully about places they love — Bhutan and Canada, New York and Connecticut.  Even though Melucci’s locations aren’t as exotic, she manages to bring them to life. I could see all the places these talented women described, from Brooklyn neighborhoods to mountain trails, and I really love a book that can take me somewhere, whether it’s familiar or faraway.

Seattle is a relatively familiar place, since we lived in the area for five years. The Computer Scientist worked for a large software company located in nearby Redmond, Washington. Seattle region has long been a foodie paradise. Matthew Amster-Burton’s memoir, Hungry Monkey, describes his determination that fatherhood was not going to end his forays into Seattle’s many markets and restaurants.

I enjoyed some of this book, but ended up skimming the rest, mainly because it reminded me of many reasons that our five years in Seattle were some of the loneliest and most frustrating of my life. It’s not Amster-Burton’s fault, personally. But everything from his hyphenated name to his trendy eating habits (I suspect that even the little ethnic hole in the walls he slums in are hot spots with other slumming urbanites) brought back bad memories. I suppose I should be thankful, because our time in Seattle brought us “home” to New Hampshire.

Also, I had such a hard time fitting in with young hip parents in the Northwest that I found my way into my first ever book group, which met a local branch library. I was the youngest member by at least a dozen years or more, but those women eased my loneliness and helped me find my tribe: book people. Which led me, eventually, to feel so at home in New Hampshire, a place brimming with book people.

New Hampshire was more like Seattle this month, as we had one of the grayest, rainiest Junes on record. I spent many a late night curled up listening to rain on the roof and reading a novel. I also finished Olive Kitteridge and discussed it with Gibson’s Book Club. We talked for a couple of hours straight about Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winning linked story collection.

While I enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge, I had a hard time with all of the “issues” — every story featured something appalling straight out of the headlines. It felt like too much to me. A linked story collection, also set in Maine, that I liked better was Monica Wood’s Ernie’s Ark.

I also read Adiga Aravind’s The White Tiger, Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters, and Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man. I enjoyed all three, for entirely different reasons.  Like the nonfiction I gravitated towards this month, these three novels depend on a strong sense of place and feature mouth watering descriptions of food.

The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize last year. Set in India, the novel follows the progress of a young man, Balram Halwai, from his village to the city as a servant to the son of one of the “big men” who control politics and business back in “The Darkness,” as Balram calls the countryside. Balram tells the story in a series of letters to Wen Jiabao (the Chinese premier) written over seven nights after he has found freedom.

Like Slumdog Millionaire, The White Tiger presents the cavernous divide between the rich and poor in contemporary India, as well as the ongoing tension between Hindus and Muslims and the corruption that taints all levels of government. Balram calls his story “The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian,” in reference to his unfinished education and limited opportunities.  Balram ultimately pulls himself out of poverty, but his tale is far from uplifting or inspiring, although it was hard to put down.

Adiga, who was a journalist for many years, recently told NHPR’s Virginia Prescott that “India is mind bogglingly complex” and that he sets out to to portray the “social complexity of life in India” in his fiction. His prose not only brings the narrative to life, but also gives readers who’ve never been to India the sights, sounds, and smells his characters are experiencing in vivid detail. He certainly tells a compelling story.

Both The Story Sisters and The Family Man are well written, entertaining, good old fashioned yarns. The Story Sisters is the more complex of the two books, with snippets of a fair tale interwoven with the story of three sisters growing up with a single mother in Long Island, and a grandmother in Paris. After a traumatic experience as a young girl, the passionately imaginative eldest sister creates the fairy tale world the sisters escape into, and her yearning for an alternate reality ultimately leads her into a troubled adolescence.

While the novel is a story of her coming of age and the impact it has on the rest of the family, Hoffman also gives attention to the other sisters, their mother, and an array of secondary characters in a series of intense subplots. It’s a haunting, layered book that emphasizes human resilience and the power of love, without becoming maudlin or spiraling into cliche.

Hoffman brought Long Island, Manhattan, Paris, and the New Hampshire North Country to life. And like Giulia Melucci cooking for the men she dates in New York, the youngest Story sister cooks first for an elderly couple who find love late in life, and then for a family friend she eventually falls in love with. You’ll want to go to Paris when you finish this book. Or at least cook something French.

The Family Man is also set in New York and is the story of a newly retired lawyer, Henry, who reconnects with his step-daughter after his ex-wife is widowed, and also finds a partner after nearly giving up on love. Lipman’s book is as astutely observant of social mores and as subtly hilarious as a Jane Austen novel. The ex-wife is a funny but humane send-up of wealthy New York society wives. She’s also the catalyst for the novel’s narrative, which brings together a lovable cast of characters in a narrative full of crazy twists and turns and an “all’s well that ends well” sensibility. If you like social comedy, try The Family Man.

Last week I finished Mudbound, ahead of schedule (it’s the Gibson’s Book Club July selection. Join us July13 at 7 pm or August 17 at noon to discuss it).  I really enjoyed the shifting point of view Hillary Nelson employs in telling the story. That said, I would have liked to hear more from some of the six characters who speak, and I think it would have been interesting to hear the racist father-in-law’s perspective.

Mudbound is set in postwar Mississippi, where the characters are dealing with the financial and physical challenges of farming, as well as racism, the social dynamic of sharecropping, and post war trauma. A dramatic book, Mudbound relies on personalities and perceptions as much as plot. The land itself, from the muddy Delta cotton country to the battlefields of WWII, has a starring role.

I’ve begun reading Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. Yesterday I read one of the most creative running scenes I’ve ever come across anywhere. I’m really enjoying the prose, and I pointed out to the Teenager this afternoon that  “The Four Quartets” figures in the story. The bookconscious literary circle is discussing the first third of Farenheit 451 this week. I clipped this photo of Ray Bradbury and hung it near the kitchen sink, and I’m happy to be re-reading one of my favorite books.

A final thought on connections and the nourishment of books. My kids had eschewed my reading aloud for months. They came to my first preschool story time this week at Gibson’s, and this evening my son told the Computer Scientist he’d forgotten how much fun my story times are. My daughter agreed. The entire exchange lasted maybe thirty seconds, but I sensed an opening.

A few days ago, I’d brought home The Serial Garden from the library. I loved Joan Aiken’s books when I was young. However, since I suggested it, the Preteen glanced skeptically at the cover and said, “maybe,” in that special terse tone of voice she reserves just for me. But this evening, as the busy weekend drew to a close, and fireflies flickered in the deepening dark, I began to read aloud. They both listened. Stories, good ones, take us away even from our selves, into a place where it doesn’t matter how old we are, how we’re feeling, how awkward and uncomfortable the world seems, how grown up we want to be.

Share a book with someone tonight, or with yourself. Let it fill you up.

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